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Britain's defence: a retro fantasy

The government plans a quasi-imperial post-Brexit lurch. It's time to plot a new course.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
14 February 2019
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and vice chief of the defence staff, General Sir Gordon Messenger arrive in Downing Street, L

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and vice chief of the defence staff, General Sir Gordon Messenger arrive in Downing Street, London, for a cabinet meeting. Image: PAThe UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson delivered what he clearly hoped would be a high-profile speech on 11 February. Its theme was that Brexit is a golden opportunity for Britain to regain its place as one of the great nations of the world. Leaving the European Union, he said, will allow the UK “to consider how we not only project but maximise our influence around the world in the months and years to come.”    

At the root of the vision is military power. In Williamson's words, this is “a moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass”. He wants to see new permanent overseas bases, a process already begun in Bahrain and planned to continue in Asia. The Royal Navy is at the core of the UK's expanding ambition, with the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft-carrier (with the HMS Prince of Wales to follow) playing a key symbolic and strategic role in a rebooted interventionism (see "Britain's 21st-century defence", 15 February 2007), 

This aspect of the speech has already provoked a strong reaction. China's vice-premier Hu Chunhua has reportedly cancelled trade talks with UK chancellor Philip Hammond in protest at Williamson's pledge (echoing earlier ones) that the HMS Queen Elizabeth would sail in the vicinity of islands in the South China Sea whose ownership is disputed but which Beijing controls and claims as its own.

 PA, 2018

HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves Portsmouth Harbour in Hampshire to undergo trials. Image: PA, 2018

Beyond that, there is already a profound dissonance in Williamson's argument, given the swingeing defence cuts since 2010 and the multiple logistical problems and cost overruns that have affected the armed forces in these years. In 2018, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – an independent oversight body – even cast doubt on whether five of the ministry of defence’s most important military projects will even be completed, so much trouble were they in.

The Royal Navy’s new Type 45 air-defence destroyer, essential for protecting the aircraft-carrier, is plagued by numerous glitches, including a risk of engine failure in warm waters (such as...the South China Sea). For its part the Royal Air Force lacks a long-range maritime capability since the Nimrod MR4A reconnaissance plane was cancelled after a hugely expensive nine years' delay. Many columns in this series have chronicled such issues (see, for example, "In defence of greatness: Britain's carrier saga" and "UK military deals: red-flag alert!").  

Yet if the internal sagas of cosmic waste and inefficency are legion, they are rarely highlighted in the public arena. Four factors contriibute to this neglect:

* A very powerful defence lobby exerts great influence on what does get published, ensuring media debates are much more cramped than they should be

* There is weak parliamentary oversight from select committees

* Labour, as the official opposition, is wary – even now, after the party's confident election campaign in 2017 – of raising defence issues for fear of being labelled unpatriotic (see "Labour, ahoy! HMS UK needs you").  

* Government as a whole exhibits what amounts to collective amnesia over the UK’s recent military failures.  

The last point deserves emphasis. Britain uncritically followed the United States to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then embarked on another in Libya alongside France. All proved disasters which led to huge physical destruction, great loss of civilian life, and a military quagmire. In Afghanistan's Helmand alone, hundreds of young British soldiers were killed or maimed for life – yet the province is now largely under Taliban control, the very movement with which the US, after seventeen years of war, now seeks to negotiate a peace. 

The real tests

In defence circles there is a degree of ridicule about the callow Gavin Williamson's gung-ho attitude and personal ambition to reach 10 Downing Street. The South China Morning Post columnist Alex Lo, referring to Mr Bean and Monty Python, observes of his speech: "Beijing must be shaking at the knees – from belly laughs".

In defence circles there is a degree of ridicule about the callow Gavin Williamson's gung-ho attitude and personal ambition to reach 10 Downing Street.

Closer to home, many worry too about his inability to grasp the true nature of the security challenges ahead. From this angle the defence secretary's outlook, as exemplified in the pompous rhetoric of his speech, verges on the ridiculous. It is suffused with the delusion of imperial grandeur that underlies much of the Brexit mindset and culture. In this national self-image, Britain will be reborn after Brexit: liberated from its European shackles, ready to reclaim its true global status. 

In light of the on-the-ground calamities and equipment fiascos of the last two decades, this comes across less as real-world vision than as an other-world conjuring trick. All the more because, in the wider, integrated context that is so much needed, it ignores both accelerating resentment at the persistent failing of the neoliberal economic model, and accumulating dangers of climate disruption – most likely the greatest security test now facing Britain and the world.

Even so, Williamson's promise will have some appeal to those longing for any signs of enhanced national status for a UK making its own way in the world. Moreover, inflated claims about Britain's continuing greatness – and frontal attacks on the leftists, defeatists and appeasers who deny it – are sure to feature strongly in the next Conservative election campaign.  

So where is the pushback? What makes its absence so frustrating is that today's Labour Party is at heart very close to embracing a security policy truly relevant to 21st-century realities, and leaving far behind the illusions of "global expeditionary reach". Such a policy, well expressed in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2017, also has the potential to connect with great swathes of voters, including younger ones (see "Britain's defence, Labour's winner").

In the midst of all the divisions and uncertainties embodied in the Brexit debate, it can be hard to look far ahead. Yet there is a strong case for a radical approach to Britain in the world, whether in or out of the European Union. What is needed is the self-confidence to challenge fantasy and instead offer inspiring, inclusive ambition.

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